More and more museums are exploring ways to use food and foodways as an extension of their missions, and as an additional pathway to community engagement. (Here’s an example, and what some Affiliates are doing.) Whether exploring historic and cultural traditions around food or promoting an agenda of sustainability, food is increasingly appearing in the repertoire of museum programming. And we know this issue carries national importance, as the American Association of Museums recently announced its collaborative proposal for Let’s Move Museums and Gardens as a way to address the First Lady’s focus on healthy, active lifestyles that incorporate good food.
At the National Museum of the American Indian, the Mitsitam Café (mitsitam means “Let’s Eat” in the local Piscataway and Delaware languages) is a prime example of how food allows visitors to “experience Native cultures and indigenous foods in ways that appeal to all the senses, transcending the limits of a museum exhibition,” according to Museum Director, Kevin Gover. Mitsitam Executive Chef Richard Hetzler researched indigenous foodways from five general cultural landscapes in North and South America as represented in the Museum’s collections. The result is a seasonal menu (the entire café changes some of its dishes 4 times per year) that reflects the food available to Native Americans, and their attitudes toward preparing it. Visitors see their tamales being made by hand and salmon roasting on an open fire pit – both ancient Native techniques. The menus are updated and refreshed for the 21st century palette, but the food also finds its way to interpretative carts, festivals and public programs. One cannot help feeling the connection to native culture that flows uninterrupted from the galleries to the café.
Using food as an interpretation tool will be the topic of a session at the annual Smithsonian Affiliations Conference this year, and what better time to do it than over breakfast? NMAI Chef Richard Hetzler will prepare a dish from his internationally-acclaimed Mitsitam cookbook, while discussing the Museum’s philosophy toward foodways education. Other Affiliates who are exploring this topic are welcome to share their programs at the session as well. And of course, we’ll all enjoy a buffet of Native breakfast foods to get our creative juices flowing.
To see the full agenda and to register for the 2011 Smithsonian Affiliations National Conference, click here.